Article - Issue 19, May/June 2004

Letter to the Editor

John Hicks FREng

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Dear Editor

The article by Sir Robert Malpas in Issue 18 on dialogue between academia and business illuminates a matter which has been of concern for a long time. The scenario which Sir Robert discusses is one where there is the potential for a step change in a product or a completely new invention or where research offers a novelty and where business and academia try to make an interface.

We have seen how exploitation of research has been achieved in another way by the academics turning into entrepreneurs; the spin-offs into Silicon Valley or Silicon Fen are familiar examples. Beyond this there has to be recognised that in industry there are also many opportunities for introducing the results of research into the improvement of a product or into a new product which are not at the root of the concept but without which the product would fail to perform.

Most of my career has been spent in the role of middleman interpreting research to industry. The opportunities for acquiring the initial understanding of the research and its developments and then being placed in a position where this can be transferred are very limited. In my field of welded joint performance there has been a small group of individuals of various origins who have exercised this role. Its pursuit requires both the knowledge of our discipline and a skill at consultancy, one fundamental of which is identifying what the client needs to know and not what he says he needs! We have our regular clients, as well as casual ones, alongside whom we work whilst topping ourselves up with the latest research findings. However what we are finding now is that there appears to be a new generation in industry which is less willing than their predecessors to seek advice from outside of their firms; perhaps they fear that to do so would be seen as displaying a weakness.

This is perhaps another aspect of Sir Robert’s suggestion 4 which identifies the unwillingness to admit ignorance or to identify where it exists. In my scenario its effect is not to inhibit the generation of research programmes but to potentially inhibit product performance or confidence in it.

John Hicks FREng

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